Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Stephen Smith

What is the value of art? It’s worth whatever you can get for it. But how much can you get for it? That depends on who you are. Are you a pushy salesman? Are you a crummy, unaggressive salesman who lets rejection wear him down?  One’s ability to sale doesn’t reflect on the quality of a work of art but it does reflect on its value. Value can be seen as price. But what about value as quality? When we question the value of a work art we aren’t questioning its price. The price can often be found on a little sticker on the wall beside the work of art. What we are asking, in aesthetic terms, is what is the innate value?

Value can only be determined in relationship to other objects. Money, itself, used to be nothing more than pieces of paper with pictures powdered-wigged or mutton-chopped former presidents before they started putting microchips and stuff in it. Even when money was based on the gold standard what was the value of the gold? Gold doesn’t have the sort of innate value of something really useful like say a glass of water and a sandwich. Does art have a function? Before the advent of modernism art was more of a craft. It served as decoration, was used in religious ceremonies or maybe just told a story. But it did something. Eventually art became a victim of its own success. When art began to be thought of as having some indescribable, sublime qualities the the function of art became unspeakable value judgments difficult if not impossible.
This line of thinking is a dead end. If value only exists as a relationship between entities and is subjective, it is useless as a descriptive quality of a work of art. Especially recently when comparisons are virtually impossible given that so much art has no similar aspects of other works of art. Here we are basically back to the value of art being what you can get for it. But that leads us no closer to the absolute value.  So is it impossible to arrive at this elusive quality of value?

Like most other philosophical disciplines, aesthetics has suffered from the troubling issue of the vague, nonsensical words. Even before modernism, when the goal of aesthetics was to define and qualify “beauty”, we were still chasing after a meaningless word. What is beauty? Saying it’s some subjective value judgment gets us nowhere. It’s impossible to go about the practice of aesthetics with the same naivety of our predecessors.  Not only can’t we come up with a good working definition of beauty we can’t come up with a good definition of art. So much of modernism involves expanding the definition of art. “See, this can be art too.” It’s amazing that that’s still considered clever in some circles.

So basically we’re left with no objective value for art. All we have is what you can get for it. So the value of art is relative to salesmanship and marketing. Things we can measure in dollars and cents.

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